Southern revolt

Print edition : November 02, 2007

The book identifies the revolt by sepoys in Vellore in 1806 as what Hobsbawm calls proto nationalism.

K.A. Manikumars book, Vellore Revolt 1806, has met the long-felt need for a historical account of the revolt of sepoys in the fortress town of Vellore in South India, an uprising which anticipated the 1857 revolt by half a century. A brief description of the expansion of British power in South India, the nature of the Madras army, life at the Vellore fort and the New Regulations of the Army introduced by the Commander-in-Chief, John Cradock, provides readers with the context of the revolt. Then follows a vivid picture of the uprising, starting from the first incident on May 6, 1806, to the attack on and the capture of the British barrack around 3 a.m. on July 10, 1806. Colonel Gillespie, Commander of the cavalry cantonment in Arcot, who arrived with reinforcements at 9 a.m., reportedly restored the Vellore fort to British control after an action lasting for about 15 minutes. Making a judicious use of the archival records of the Secret and Military Departments of the Government of Madras and the reports of incidents given by British as well as native officers at different levels, Manikumar weaves the narrative of the revolt, letting the events unfold through eye-witness accounts.

Through a sifting of evidence collected by the special commission of enquiry appointed by the Government of Madras on July 12, 1806, the author brings out the magnitude of the revolt. He dwells upon how a device of punishment and reward was used to induce the soldiers to return to good conduct. The oppressive regulations were withdrawn and the Governor of Madras, William Bentinck, and the John Cradock recalled. The revolt was crushed, but the British officials were so rudely shocked out of their inertia that the fear and panic created by the disaffection of the native army lived for a long time to come. Lord Minto, as Governor-General, thought it fit to impose a ban on the publications and preachings of the Serampore missionaries for imprudently attacking the Hindu religion. The echoes of the Vellore revolt in Bellary, Wallajabad, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Nandidurg, Sankaridurg and Palayamkottai highlight the complexity of the British reaction. The repercussions of the revolt at multiple levels reveal the significance of the event.

In the seminal chapter of the book, Causes and Consequences, the author employs verstehen a process of understanding the intention and context of human actions wherein individuals are seen to create the world by organising their own understanding of it and giving it meaning. As a result, the soldiers are not mere objects of study but live subjects whose perceptions and meanings are related to their environment. The soldiers of the Madras Army, drawn from the peasant community, were in constant touch with their villages, their monde sociale that was passing through a phase of violent change in all spheres of life in the context of British rule. Their actions on July 10, 1806, were the outcome of long-standing grievances that are explored in a detailed analysis.

The service conditions of Indian sepoys in the Madras Army were deplorable and without avenues for promotion beyond the rank of Subedar. The sepoys and native officers were held in contempt and their feelings and opinions never counted. The lack of acquaintance with native tongues not only strained relations between the two sides but had created mutual distrust. The imperious attitude of the English officers added insult to injury. The British policy of territorial conquest was resented by dethroned Indian potentates. Analysing whether the revolt was a political movement for restoration, the author opines that British military officers, in order to wriggle out of the situation in which they were caught napping, found a scapegoat in Tipu Sultans family lodged in the Vellore fort and alleged that the mutiny was engineered by his sons. However, he points out that the presence of Tipus sons in Vellore would have provided a rallying point to the aggrieved and disaffected Muslims among the sepoys.

The obnoxious regulations of 1805 prohibited soldiers to wear caste or religious marks on their foreheads and rings on their ears and to grow whiskers. On the other hand, the regulations made it mandatory for them to wear a tunic, the front part of which was converted into a cross (Christian symbol) and sport a stiff round hat with a flat top, a leather cockade and a standing feather. The new headgear (topi) was different from the turban that the soldiers wore earlier. A topiwallah, or hat-wearer, meant a feringhee (foreigner) or a Christian (an outcaste and a convert). To make matters worse, the new hat was partly made of leather from the skins of the unclean hog or of the sacred cow, a matter of abomination and sacrilege to Hindus and Muslims. The author quotes John Kaye to describe what the sepoys felt: We shall next be compelled to eat and drink with the outcaste and infidel English, to give them our daughters in marriage, to become one people, and follow one faith.

The Vellore fort. The revolt of 1806 is now thought to have anticipated the 1857 uprising.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The Vellore fort.

In an elaborate essay on Cloth, Clothes and Colonialism, Bernard S. Cohn (Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996) wrote: Europeans explained the nature of Indian headdress in functionalist and materialist terms: the turban was for the protection of the head. Indians clearly did not share the idea that the turban or other headdresses were primarily for protection from the sun. The elaborate decoration of the caps, the jewel-bedecked turbans of the rulers, and the choice of hat as a major symbol of the Nationalist movement all indicate that hats are much more than a form of protection from the heat or the rays of the sun. The turban, a continuation of the traditional costume or mamool was a symbol of honour whereas the topi was a symbol of subordination. Seditious conversations in the bazaars and military lines, wild prophecies and mysterious soothsaying of wandering fakirs, and the suggestive devices of puppet shows and ballads find mention in British records as causes of disaffection among sepoys. However, Manikumar does not elaborate upon them. He attempts to place the sepoys in their locale, namely the social world of the rural peasant, but he does not identify rumours as popular discourses against an interventionist colonial state. David Arnolds Touching the Body: Perspectives on the Indian Plague, 18961900 (in Ranajit Guha edited Subaltern Studies V, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987) provides a model for how rumour, as the language of subaltern resistance, forms an important though unconventional source material for writing the history of resistance to colonial rule.

The oppressive nature of land tenure and the distress of peasants owing to famine, death and debility are outlined to reveal how rural society was drastically altered by British rule, leading to the disruption of the mental and moral world of the peasant who could no longer make meaning out of it. Manikumar offers a critique of pre- and post-Independence explanations of the revolt and concludes that the Vellore revolt was a united revolt of Indian soldiers against the common adversary, the British power. The soldiers did not act on impulse and emotions. They hated the imperial policy and cutting across religious and caste barriers, planned to overthrow the British rule. He identifies the Vellore revolt as what Eric Hobsbawm characterises as proto nationalism and points out that such movements form the necessary base for state-aspiring national movements.

Europeans in the 18th century were building states by establishing and making visible their power in many areas through gradual officialisation procedures. In Great Britain, this process of state building was closely linked with the countrys emergence as an imperial power. India, the jewel in the British Crown, provided the space for the British to experiment with their state-building exercises. John Cradock and Colonel Gillespie were agents of British imperialism, and the revolt of the sepoys at Vellore was a spontaneous uprising against the imperialist agenda. The account of the Vellore revolt by Manikumar brings out a lot of similarities with the revolt of 1857 and rightly gives it its due place in the saga of anti-colonial, anti-imperial resistance in India. The book is a model for research scholars in modern Indian history for its solid use of historical methods and a mine of information for students of the political and cultural history of colonial India.

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